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Fool Me Twice

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

There aren’t many guarantees in the NFL. One is opponents will force you to prove you have fixed a problem they spot on film.

In Week 2 the Browns lined up for a third and goal play on the six.

The Jets run a rather complex coverage. One way to think about it is the team starts the play in zone. Then as a receiver runs into somebody’s zone, that defender picks him up in man coverage.

The Browns had three receivers to the left of their formation. Below is an approximation of the routes and the defenders who picked those players up.

The real action is happening on the other side of the formation, though.

The Jets have two defenders. The Browns have two receivers. Sauce Gardner is outside lined up across from Amari Cooper. Lamarcus Joyner is in the slot. Kareem Hunt is in the backfield.

Hunt takes off for the flat. Joyner follows him from the slot. However, Gardner is also sitting on his spot waiting for Hunt to arrive.

This means nobody picks up Cooper. Cooper raises his hand in the air. This is an indicator that he might have recognized the bust in coverage and broken his route. The hand wave can be the signal to forget the play and get him the ball. A savvy receiver like Cooper can spot these things.

The play ends up being a bust in coverage and a touchdown.

Now let’s fast forward a week. The Bengals find themselves in the exact same situation. It is once again third and goal from the six.

Not so shockingly they decided to see whether the Jets figured out their coverage.

Again the left side of the formation has three receivers. There are three defenders ready to take on whichever receiver comes into their area.

More significantly, the right side of the formation has two players. You have a running back heading into the flat and the offense’s number one receiver. It is exactly like the Browns play. The window dressing is a little different since Mixon starts the play in the slot rather than the backfield, but the routes run are virtually the same. The back is coming to the flat. Again he is chased by the defender who started the play in the slot. This time it is Quincy Williams.

Again, Sauce releases the receiver who ends up wide open because he is focused on the back running into the flat.

The play ends in another easy touchdown.

So who is to blame here?

I think the story is a bit complicated. My guess is Sauce Gardner is the primary culprit. I say that for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he is the constant. Two different defenders who began in the slot essentially read the play exactly the same way. That is a giveaway.

Looking at the matchups is also a giveaway. I doubt the Jets want Cooper and Chase to get switched away from Sauce unless they need to. They certainly wouldn’t want Joyner to be covering Amari Cooper much less Quincy Williams matched up with Ja’marr Chase.

It seems like a case of a rookie having trouble grasping a complex coverage.

But I would say that speaks to something the coaches should have addressed. It can be tempting to come up with all of these elaborate concepts on the chalkboard during the offseason. When the games arrive, you have to make calls your players are comfortable with and capable of executing.

If Sauce was struggling with this, I think they should have picked it up the first time and made changes accordingly.

One thing the CBS replay picked up was that Sauce didn’t seem to be the only Jet confused by the call. You can see before the play Jordan Whitehead is trying to communicate with Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner moves presnap. The veteran safety appeared confused with where he needed to get lined up.

And even from the locker room it sounds like this is viewed as a widespread issue.

No matter what you can count on opponents throwing this at the Jets in the red zone until they show they have an answer.